November 3, 2010
I’ve been thinking. Kids who want to go into the arts for a living generally hear something like this from adults: “You really ought to have something to fall back on. You know you’ll probably never be able to make a living at that. That’s not very realistic, is it?” I’ve talked before about what a hideously bad thing it is to discourage kids like that. (I still hold a grudge against the people who told me I couldn’t be a writer. I sometimes think about calling them up and gloating.)
But I wonder: Do kids who want to go into other difficult areas get that kind of discouragement? If a kid says, “I want to be an astronaut.” Or even “I want to be President.” What’s the response then? The stereotype says “encouragement.” What’s the thing we say, that any kid can grow up to be President (which Obama actually validated, lest we become too jaded). If a kid wants to be an astronaut — especially if this kid is really good in science and has an interest in astronomy — what’s the response? Yay? Boo? What?
Because I gotta tell you, you have a better chance of making a living as a writer or an actor than you do of becoming an astronaut. Seriously.
From the Screen Actors Guild website: “SAG represents over 120,000 actors who work in film and digital motion pictures and television programs, commercials, video games, industrials, Internet and all new media formats.”
From the Actors’ Equity Association website: “. . .represents more than 48,000 Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.”
The Writers Guild of America (West) has roughly 19,300 members. (link goes to Wikipedia because the WGA website was unhelpful…)
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America alone has around 1500 members.
Now granted, there aren’t 150,000 people in the US making their entire living as actors, and only a fraction of that 1500 in SFWA make their sole living as writers (but I can name a couple of dozen who are off the top of my head). But all of the above organizations have stringent professional requirements for membership. Every single member has been paid for their art. Many of them quite well, and for decades.
On the other hand, according to Nasa.gov, there are currently 106 men and women employed as astronauts in the U.S., plus 9 astronaut candidates. (And it doesn’t look like there’ve been any new ones selected since 2004.)
What I don’t have are numbers on what the competition is like — how many more people are competing for those actor and writer slots, versus how many people are competing for those astronaut slots. But I’m still willing to bet the average kid has a better chance of making it as an actor or writer than as an astronaut. Let’s not even talk about President of the U.S. — maybe three people in a generation get that job. But does any kid who says they want to be President ever hear, “You know, kid, maybe you’d better have something to fall back on?”
So why don’t young aspiring actors and writers — and filmmakers, and fashion designers, and visual artists, and so on — get any love? Because a lot of people don’t look at their crafts as work. They’re seen as leisure activities. Everybody knows that being an astronaut is really hard. You have to be really smart, it’s hugely competitive — and boy, the status involved. You’re a national hero by default. Who wouldn’t aspire to that? Go for it, kid!
But writing? Acting? Anyone can do that. (Never mind that the people who think this can’t explain why not everyone does…) The really visible people in those jobs? The really famous actors, let’s say? We never see them working — we see them getting coffee in People magazine. We have pervasive cultural images of artists, actors, writers, etc. as dissolute vagrants who come to horrible ends. (Thank you very much, La Boheme.) People who discourage kids from the arts really do think they’re doing the kids a favor. Famous people are actors, not you. (And yet, every week, hundreds of actors appear in guest starring slots on prime time TV shows…they have to come from somewhere…)
Let me also point out that the entertainment industry generates hundreds of billions of dollars every year. If a kid wants to try to get a slice of that for themselves? Heck yeah, go for it!